Standing for Shalom: Peace as the Heart of God

At the end of my series ‘Setting our Stories Straight,’ I suggested that of the biblical idea of Shalom, or ‘peace’ — understood as wholeness, integrity, and the presence of healthy, reciprocal relationships — could be the best way of understanding the internal goals of Christian faith. Inspired by the thought of theologians like Walter Brueggemann, Randy Woodley, and Lisa Sharon Harper, I concluded that “Christianity is at heart a way of reconciliation and peace-making,” not just between humanity and God, but within all of our relationships. I also noted that this understanding was particularly well-suited for our contemporary Canadian context, both because it resonates strongly with Indigenous cultural values (what Woodley calls ‘the Harmony Way’, a shared set of values his research identified among a wide variety of Indigenous peoples), without appropriating them, but also with the consistent struggle of unity-and-diversity and belonging that has always been at the heart of the settler and immigrant Canadian experience, from the eighteenth century through the twenty-first. Shalom-seeking is therefore a helpful common ground, and one that helps to define what reconciliation — whether in strictly theological terms, or in the socio-political terms of the transformation of relationships between settler and Indigenous societies — looks like. In a way this present series will be an expansion of this thought. But for today, I’d like to look at shalom itself, first in biblical perspective, then bringing in some Indigenous perspectives.

Shalom in Biblical Perspective

Shalom, as is well known, is the Hebrew word we usually translate in English as ‘peace.’ But compared to shalom, ‘peace’ has a rather narrow and limited connotation. We think of peace primarily in terms of the absence of hostility or conflict. But shalom is far more about the presence of something, rather than its absence. It is ‘peace’, most certainly, but peace envisioned as wholeness, health, welfare, safety, integrity, fullness, harmony, friendliness, trust, and ease. (See Woodley 2012 for an even more extensive list.)* It is essentially about being in good relationships with God, with one’s community, and with oneself.

We see a perfect vision of this kind of peace in the “very goodness” of things in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 1-2). “God’s original intention,” in Woodley’s (2012) words, “was to allow humans to relate in the parameters of a shalom garden.” They were to appreciate, get to know (’name’), and enjoy the abundance of Eden. Humanity’s proper relationship to the rest of creation in this story is called ‘dominion’, which as we saw last year, is a misleading translation, and is not about domination but stewardship. The humans are called to tend and care for the earth and its creatures. As the story goes, Adam and Eve broke this original shalom relationship. Their failure to listen and subsequent cover-up broke shalom with God, their finger-pointing broke shalom with each other, and this, in turn, broke shalom with the land. These broken relationships are called ‘sin’.

We could honestly say that the rest of the Bible is about the restoration of shalom. The Law of Moses contained rituals and ways of being that would ensure good relations to God, stipulations for right living with family and in community, but also provisions for how to treat the land and animals. As Woodley (2022) helpfully notes, such a broad scope of shalom can be found at the heart of the biblical festivals, and the Sabbath and Jubilee years.

The Prophets likewise look towards a world order governed by shalom. Hosea perhaps puts it most succinctly, proclaiming a peaceable kingdom whose provisions extend not just within Israel, but to all creation and an elimination of warfare:

I will make for you a covenant on that day with the wild animals, the birds of the air, and the creeping things of the ground; and I will abolish the bow, the sword, and war from the land; and I will make you lie down in safety. (Hosea 2.18)

But the most famous explorations of shalom in the Prophets come from Isaiah, who envisions a total restoration of the shalom of Eden. Not only is there an end of warfare, but the very weapons of destruction are transformed into tools for the cultivation of the land (Isaiah 2.3-4). This new peaceable state is also seen between humanity and wild animals, and even among wild animals, without reference to humans (2.3-4, 11.6-9). And, in the text most important for the development of Christianity — for Jesus took it on as his own mission (Luke 4.16-21) — we have the proclamation of good news to the oppressed, the healing of the wounded, the and freedom of those imprisoned. All of this is envisioned as bubbling up naturally in God’s order of things, as life naturally emerges from the ground (61.1-11).

As his appropriation of Isaiah 61 suggests, shalom was at the heart of Jesus’ self-understanding. He taught about forgiveness, healed the sick (restoring them to ‘wholeness’, shalom of both heart and body), built relationships with marginalized people, crossed his society’s boundaries of appropriate gender relations, and made a religious outsider the hero of one of his most famous parables. Paul goes so far as to name Jesus, not just the shalom-bringer but shalom itself (Ephesians 2.14). The Epistles envision the right functioning of the community in terms such as parts of a body working together and bricks knit together to form a temple, and ‘peace’ is a blessing wished for in every New Testament letter. All of this helps to provide context for the basic confusion surrounding Jesus during and after his life. As Mark Charles and Soong-Chan Rah point out, “The people of Israel expected a return to the greatness of the kingdom of David, but God remembered the communion of community in the Garden of Eden.” What God was doing in Jesus was operating at a deeper level than the expectations of the people at large.

Finally, we might even see shalom at the heart of the doctrine of the Trinity: Traditional Christianity envisions God as the perfect, co-operative, non-competitive and non-domination-oriented community — or in other words, as Love, not as a sentimental feeling but as a way of life.

A major consequence of centering shalom in this way is that it focuses as much on the present aspects of salvation as the future ones. While, yes, we await the full consummation of this peaceable vision in God, it has obvious, ‘mission-critical’ consequences for how we live in the here and now. To quote Woodley (2012) again, “Shalom is communal, holistic, and tangible. There is no private or partial shalom.” We are called to be peacemakers (Matthew 5.9) in every relationship, today. In a tradition that has in recent centuries often struggled to reconcile grace and ‘works’, placing shalom at the heart of things could provide a helpful way forward that rightly understands our peacemaking (and peace-living) actions as an extension and consequence of God’s shalom orientation towards us.

Woodley (2012) lays down the gauntlet for all Christians:

The universal expectation for all humanity to live out shalom has been given. Shalom has been decreed. God expects us to make the old way of living new. The Creator requires us to reshape the world we know into the world God has intended.

So then, there is good reason on internal Christian grounds to make shalom, or peace, the central goal of our faith. How might this idea intersect with Indigenous belief systems and contribute to our reconciliation efforts?

Shalom and the ‘Harmony Way’

One of my major sources in the previous section was Randy Woodley, a Cherokee Christian theologian, who performed an extensive study of Indigenous cultural values in his doctoral research. Beginning from his own culture’s dual concepts of Eloheh, ‘balance’, which refers equally to their worldview, religion, and even land, and Duyukta, ‘the right path.’ which involves a balanced life in reciprocal relationships, Woodley discovered similar concepts in cultures from across the continent and its major geographic regions and Indigenous linguistic-cultural groups. Woodley concluded that a ‘harmony ethic’ was (and remains) widespread, if not universal, among Indigenous peoples.

While Woodley identified ten general elements within the Harmony Way, in summary, it is a way of life focused on “justice, restoration, and continuous right living … viewed as a gift from the Creator” (Woodley 2012). While not directly part of his research area, Woodley has since uncovered similar understandings among the peoples of sub-Saharan Africa (Zulu, Maasai), South America (Inca), Arctic (Inuit, Sami), and Oceania (Maori, Australian Aboriginal peoples, and Hawai’ians).

In my own far less extensive readings, apart from Woodley’s research, I have seen enough corroborating evidence to accept his general hypothesis. I have found similar ideas expressed in writings by Nuu-Chah-Nuulth, Nehiyaw (Cree), Ojibwe (Anishinaabe), Haudenosaunee (Iroquois Confederacy), Lakota, Cherokee, Hul’qumi’num, and Dine’ (Navajo) writers about their own cultural values. Here is just a small sample:

  • Hishuk is ts’awalk ‘everything is one’ (Nuu-Chah-Nuulth) (Turner)
  • miyo pimat’ssiwin, “an ecologically grounded ethical and political philosophy about how we live together in the best way possible” (Ladner, emphases added)
  • “ …. a relationship of mutual respect and sharing with Mother Earth and all our kin — human and more than human — that we have responsibilities to acknowledge and enact in every breath and step we take.” (Hul’qumi’num) (Borrows & Tully)
  • The Great Law of Peace of the Haudenosaunee, which involves three fundamental principles: Righteousness, Justice, and Health (National Museum of the American Indian)
  • Hôzhô, a Navajo concept referring to “the ideal environment of beauty, harmony, and happiness.” (Kidwell, Noley, and Tinker)

All of these different concepts across Indigenous cultures share the sensibility that the aim of life is to live in a way that promotes harmony, balance, and reciprocal relationships within and between communities and all of the created order.

With all of this in mind, it is no surprise that Woodley (2022) sees a strong connection between the Harmony Way and the biblical ideal of Shalom discussed above:

[O]ur Indigenous harmony-way constructs are much like the ancient Jewish concept of shalom. The shalom word group often translates as peace, restoration of creation, prosperity, respect, justice, truth, acceptance, restitution, abundance, equity, integrity, intimacy, growth, well-being, restored relationship, and a place where God is in charge. It is a word pregnant with meaning. To quote Brueggemann, “Shalom is the end of coercion. Shalom is the end of fragmentation. Shalom is the freedom to rejoice. Shalom is the courage to live an integrated life in a community of coherence.”

Shalom and Christian Identity

This post has identified the biblical idea of Shalom, or ‘peace’, as not only a good candidate for the core focus of Christian life and faith, but also one that carries a strong resonance with Indigenous cultural values.

Of course, as a collective, Christians have done a rather wretched job of living out this ideal. While the history of Western engagement with North American Indigenous peoples is the example at the forefront of this series, this historical shalom-breaking goes far beyond that. As the prominent Ojibwe knowledge-holder and teacher Anton Treuer notes, “White folk were busy colonizing one another for a long time before they took it to the rest of the world.” Indeed, the self-identified ‘Christian’ nations of Europe inherited and appropriated much of the imperialistic, domination-oriented legacy of the Roman Empire. These were cultures where power, wealth and access to land was increasingly unequally distributed across their own populations. Colonization and imperialism were not as much a new development in Early Modern Europe as they were the application of their existing political structures to the whole world. No matter what dressing or language may have been put on all of this, none of this is an expression of Christian faith, but a mockery of it. It has nothing to do with the heart of God, which has always been expressed by the biblical ideal of shalom.

We are not alone in our inability to live up to our values. The record of the Israelite people contained in the Bible shows just how hard it is to make, keep, and live out shalom. And, most Indigenous peoples have their own stories of times when the Harmony Way was not kept, when the animals disappeared due to disrespectful hunting practices, or when injustice and ingratitude caused the world to be flooded. Being Indigenous is no guarantee of living out the Harmony Way. But that is the whole point: It is not easy to live in harmony with one another and ‘all our relations’. It must actively be worked toward. It is a constant commitment, not a one-time deal.

Our present moment of reckoning — not just in terms of settler states’ relations with Indigenous peoples, but also the continued impacts of racism and sexism, increasing wealth disparities, and the increasingly devastating consequences of our lifestyles in terms of environmental degradation and climate change — offers us the opportunity to do things in a new way. As Kaitlin Curtice has put it, “Right now, we are in a flood. Right now, we are asking to begin again, to re-create and sustain what it means to be people of peace.”

In Christian terms, this is a call to repentance, to that renewal of the mind that allows us to see the world clearly and live changed lives. It is a call to return to the deep values of our tradition, taught consistently in our creation stories, in the Law of Moses, in the Prophets, in the teaching of Jesus and the apostles, and by the saints of every age. It is a call to shalom, to peacemaking as a way of life. It is a call to faith.

In the next post, I’ll explore how centering shalom as the heart of Christian witness provides helpful insights into how we understand faith and what it means to be faithful.

* Please see the bibliography for the series for details.

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